“Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” ― Mary Oliver
The book Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein is a provocative, sometimes witty, examination of the relatively recent and fast rise of the “girlie girl” culture in America. The book raises some probing questions regarding the impact of this pervasive shift on our young daughters.
A friend of mine who has two girls close in age to my own daughters recommended it and let me borrow her copy. I was a little afraid of what I might read as we’re pretty big Disney fans at our house, and my girls have certainly embraced the Princess tales and accompanying merchandise hook, line, and glass slipper.
I know many women have long mocked the stories for portraying life’s main goal as finding true love and living “happily ever after”. But after reading this book, I have to say that would be the least of our problems. I actually DO believe that one of the keys to happiness for ALL people, regardless of gender, is to find that one person you can love who understands and loves you back, with whom you can share your life. I don’t think that principle is necessarily wrong, even if the “happily ever after” might look a little different in reality. What IS problematic is that the Disney Princess stories all portray “love” in such a superficial and one-sided way in which the man holds all the cards. The message: be pretty and woo a man without really knowing him (Cinderella, Snow White, Ariel – she can’t even use her voice, but is expected to capture his heart, Belle – falls in love with her kidnapper who is borderline abusive, or in the case of Sleeping Beauty – without even being conscious!) For all we know, these “princes” could be royal jerks, but there is never any back story or character development showing what would be appealing about these men – their title and handsomeness is enough to pass muster with our indiscriminate princesses-to-be.
But I think even more damaging than those simple stories is the marketing frenzy around Princess and girl-centric (in a stereotypical way) merchandise – which the author points out didn’t really even happen until the new millennium. It makes a hard to ignore connection for impressionable minds between being pretty and being a girl. This connection extends beyond the already limiting perfect hour-glass figure and long flowing hair, but also equates to fancy clothes, jewelry, make-up, tiaras, and converting everything that you own into something pink and glitter-or-sequin-covered. It’s the ever-present message that “I consume, therefore I am [a girl].” Consuming is the way to express your femininity, just look at Sex in the City, Gossip Girl, the Shopaholic book series, the list goes on. Made me wonder what messages I’m unintentionally conveying with my behavior as a grown woman.
Orenstein even takes aim at the relatively wholesome American Girl brand. While preaching down-to-earth individuality from a simpler time, this authentic and wholesome experience is apparently only for affluent girls, as they market their $100 dolls and pricey outfits, accessories, and $30 doll salon visits (yes, their hair dos cost more than my husband’s!).
According to the book, the once feminist “Girl Power” was co-opted by marketers to sell more stuff, not to empower girls. And it was a slippery slope from the rise of the princesses to Bratz and Moxie Girls, and then to belly shirts for six-year-olds, hot pants for 12-year-olds, and suggestive dancing a la Glee and Gaga for all ages (thank you YouTube!) That said, American Girl might be elitist, but they’re still pretty preferable to some of the other options out there, which likely explains their explosive sales growth despite (or maybe because of?) their sky-high price tag.
The book is certainly meant to create debate and can get a bit extreme in some of its views – as a person who did take a few Women’s Studies courses in college, the feminist tone sounded familiar and can at times be a bit righteous. BUT, I also really appreciated the way the author backed up her strong opinions with plenty of supporting facts and studies done by psychologists, child development experts, as well as interviews and ethnographies of sorts that she conducted herself.
I definitely recommend checking this out if you’ve ever had that nagging feeling that something’s not right when five-year-old girls are getting manicures at the spa, shows like Toddlers and Tiaras are hits, and kid idols like Miley Cyrus make the switch from child star to “serious actor/musician” by taking off her clothes for Vanity Fair.